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OVER MY HEADJourneys in Leaky Boats from the Strait of Magellan to Cape Horn and Beyond
By Margaret Winslow
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Margaret Winslow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFalling off the Edge
On my first flight to South America, an oft-repeated childhood nightmare seemed to come to life: I was looking at an antique map of the Western Hemisphere when suddenly I felt myself sliding southward, down the sheet toward the earth's corpulent waist. There I teetered at the brink, feet flailing in the air, before tumbling down through darker and darker latitudes, until I soared past the bleakly lit Antarctic ice cap into deepest space. To make things worse, as the jet zigzagged southward from New York to Buenos Aires, the odd jogs in the route (Miami to Panama to Rio) disoriented my inner compass, which was set for due south. Over the dark southern continent in the middle of the night, the flickering pinpoints of civilization grew dimmer and farther apart, like tiny campfires bravely holding back the rainforest.
For my first tumble from the belt, so to speak, I met up with two geologists and two other geology graduate students in May of 1974 for a southern Hemisphere winter expedition to the islands south of the Beagle Channel. My doctoral advisor, Ian Dalziel, had made an arrangement with the US Antarctic Research Program (USARP) for us to use their research ship, the R/V (research vessel) Hero. Normally the Hero, the supply ship for Palmer Station in Antarctica, lay in port in Ushuaia, Argentina, during the long austral winter, when pack ice made the Antarctic station inaccessible by sea. Permission to use this ship presented a rare opportunity for us to navigate the spidery channels of Tierra del Fuego. The downside: it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and we would have only three to five hours of arctic twilight in which to examine and collect rock samples.
Back in New York, I had latched on to Ron Bruhn, a great bear of a man from Alaska. He had recently wrapped up his geological mapping the north side of the Beagle Channel. Maarten De Witt, a Dutch postdoctoral fellow, was traveling alone via Brazil and Paraguay. Maarten, Ron, and I were officemates at Columbia University. Bob Dott, an eminent geology professor, and his graduate student Bob Winn, both from the University of Wisconsin, met us in Miami. All veterans of geological explorations in remote regions, they tossed around wry remarks about the tribulations to come, such as killer whales upending boats and spilling us into the icy waters.
"I can hardly wait!" I said, trying to imitate the dry wit of my cohorts.
The next morning, the plane landed at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires, where we were greeted by—no one, not even an exit staircase. We waited in the airless cabin far from the terminal for a half hour until an outside stairway crept toward us, pushed by two frowning men in blue business suits. Outside on the tarmac, we waited as a cargo handler climbed into the underbelly of the plane and dropped the bags fifteen feet to the ground. No luggage carts or helpers in sight, we schlepped our heavy duffels and backpacks to the terminal. Where was everyone? Inside the terminal, lines snaked back and forth from previously unprocessed arrivals.
From increasing grumbles, Ron picked up what we hadn't been told before we left New York. He whispered to me, "There's a national strike on. Peron's dying, and everyone is at the demonstrations, both pro- and anti-Peron. Oh, and they're all worked up about Chile's claims to some of the islands, the same ones we're hoping to land on."
"Great," I said. A long trip to see no more than the inside of the terminal.
Bob Dott turned around and added, "The whole cruise may be off."
Two suffocating hours later, two shipping agents turned up and whisked us around the lines and out a side door, to the muttered protests of the other passengers. Bundled into three taxis, we sped into the city, careening around streets full of protesters, bumping curbs, and skirting ruined fountains. Buenos Aires resembled Hollywood's version of Paris between the Great Wars. Ornate architecture, sidewalk cafes, and stores displaying elegant women's fashions mixed with dreary, metal-shuttered buildings. White marble-carved arches, hundreds of bronze statues, and algae-clogged fountains detoured traffic at many intersections. Ghostly stone mansions and Colonial-style hotels sat behind weedy parks, peering out through layers of grime. Long, wrought iron balconies, lined with shuttered French doors, suggested romantic encounters within. Nearby, piles of construction debris clogged the sidewalks around partially finished Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks. Everywhere, the streets and sidewalks were torn up, and wounds from broken water mains seeped rusty water onto the streets. Buses fueled by crude oil spewed black fumes and stirred the construction dust that lay all over the city. So many signs of fitful vigor, yet the city appeared to be in perpetual decline, despite heroic efforts to recover some lost dream of glory.
In the hotel's tiny lobby, I reluctantly surrendered my brand-new passport to the shipping agents—a gnome-shaped grandmother with a pronounced Swedish accent and her gaunt Italian husband—who told us it would take three days to have the visas changed from turista to tripolante (seaman), a regulation no one had warned us about. (The full-page Argentine tripolante stamp would cause no end of misunderstandings when I began my work in Chile later that year.)
I dumped my duffel bags in my stuffy room and attempted to open a window, only to find the metal security shutters bent and stuck shut. I turned off the air conditioner, which belched smoker's breath, and returned to the sunny lobby, only to find that the guys had already set off to explore the city. I delayed leaving the tiny lobby by ordering a beer and an omeleta con queso (cheese omelet). I dawdled over the newspapers, looking up words in my dictionary. Okay, Winslow, get out there and explore.
Passport-less and conspicuous in my short corduroy field pants and T-shirt, but desperate to get some circulation in my legs, I set forth. I slipped around a few corners, dodging streets choked with demonstrators. Back in New York a friend had suggested that I supplement six weeks of Introductory Spanish with some children's books, which she supplied. Armed with useful phrases such as, "There is a troll in the moat," I found my way to the pedestrian mall, La Florida. I sat down at an outdoor table and ordered a cup of tea. All around me young people, dressed as if for a fashion shoot in Milan, whispered and gestured with their cigarettes. An official-looking sign tacked to a light pole read, ominously, Silencio es Salud. Silence is healthy.
During three days of uneasy confinement in Buenos Aires, I intercepted the guys on some of their daytime jaunts and breathed the sharp tang of tear gas at night. On the fourth morning, the agents swooped in with a loud "Rapido, rapido!" for us to pack up and leave. As I had sweated through my only set of travel clothes, I was more than ready to flee to the remote and chilly south.
Chapter TwoThe Uttermost Part of the Earth
Aerolineas Argentinas' elderly turboprop lurched south toward Tierra del Fuego, under glowering clouds and fading winter sunshine. I pulled out my maps to trace our route. Far below the equatorial belt now, my map showed that South America juts farther south into the icy Antarctic waters than any other continent, except for Antarctica itself. Cape Horn, at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego at fifty-six degrees south latitude, reaches more than five hundred miles farther south than the southern tip of New Zealand, and more than thirteen hundred miles farther south than Africa's Cape of Good Hope.
I had read that fierce ocean currents of the West Wind Drift race unopposed around Antarctica, but must squeeze through the narrow Drake Passage between the two continents. The restriction causes the infamous, sixty-foot-high Cape Horn Rollers. The nearest islands off the coast of Antarctica lie only five hundred miles from Cape Horn. Our cruise plan would keep us within the sheltered islands scattered off the bent toe of the South American continent, and, I hoped, out of the reach of its storms.
Outside the scratched window of the plane, the snow-capped Andes defined the western horizon most of the day. The Patagonian Pampas, a vast, wind-washed ocean of grass, lapped up against the Andes to the west and terminated abruptly at sea cliffs along the Atlantic coast almost directly under the flight path.
Our plane touched down first in Trelew (settled by Welsh immigrants) and stopped in heavily industrialized Commodoro Rivadavia, where most passengers disembarked. South of Commodoro towns clung to the coast and seemed to exponentially decrease in size as the wind velocity increased. The plane made several stops at windblown coastal airstrips before thumping down in Rio Gallegos, the southernmost town on the Argentine side of the mainland. All passengers had to disembark into a brutal dust storm.
We lugged our bags toward a prefabricated building, where we unexpectedly had to pass a thorough customs and immigration check. Pushing hard against the metal door to escape from the overheated shed, Ron and I hunched against the wind and angled over to a rusted old airplane lurking in the weedy gravel.
Ron, a licensed pilot, pointed to windowless hulk. "Hey, Margie! There's our plane."
I quickly caught on to him. "Yeah. Sure."
After an hour's wait on the airstrip, we boarded an Argentine military turboprop and flew over the eastern entrance of the Strait of Magellan. The teal blue, wave-lashed strait marks the boundary between the contiguous South American continent and the hundreds of mostly unoccupied islands of Tierra del Fuego. At its eastern end, the strait is wide and bounded on both sides by flat, sandy coast, unlike the narrow fjords with towering mountains found near its western outlet to the Pacific. The pampas vegetation continues southward across the Strait of Magellan where it terminates in northern Tierra del Fuego.
Just north of the strait, the national boundary between Chile and Argentina jogs from nearly north-south along most of its length, to due east along the fifty-second parallel, which places both sides of the strait along its entire length, including the water, in Chile. Tierra del Fuego's torturously indented and broken coasts spread the islands over a huge area. Isla Grande is by far the largest, and the only inhabited (with minor exceptions) island of Tierra del Fuego's vast archipelago. The political boundary between Chile and Argentina cuts due south again across Isla Grande as far as the Beagle Channel, placing most of Tierra del Fuego in Chile. The only towns on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego are also ports: Rio Grande and Ushuaia.
The plane bounced onto the boulder-strewn runway outside Rio Grande, the northern of Argentine Tierra del Fuego's two towns. On a low approach to the airstrip, the town appeared to be flat, open to the dusty winds, and full of trucks teeming with cattle, sheep, lumber, and oil drums. When the wheels bumped to a stop, we had to disembark, collect our baggage, and line up at another makeshift "immigrations" checkpoint, even though we had remained in Argentina the whole time. Ron and I fled the smoke-filled departure area and stood on the airstrip in a gritty wind.
I pointed out a rust-streaked old Fokker parked in the weeds.
"There's our plane, Ron!"
I laughed, but this time Ron didn't. I looked around but didn't see any other planes. Our turboprop had already beaten a hasty retreat for the mainland. After a few minutes, we shuffled into a queue heading toward the fossil raptor, climbed up rickety stairs, and squeezed into the narrow fuselage. The miserable old Fokker shuddered under its load, shook off the dust of the airstrip, and reluctantly hurled itself into the clouds at an impossibly steep angle.
"Damn cowboys," Ron growled as he rubbed his ears and swallowed to relieve the pressure.
On this last leg of our air journey, the plane rattled out over the Atlantic in heavy winds before wobbling southward toward the Beagle Channel. All day, the Andes had formed a solid boundary on the western horizon, but just south of Rio Grande, the range swerved sharply eastward and passed right under the plane. The green-brown grasses of northern Tierra del Fuego gave way to razor-edge ridges of the Cordillera Darwin that marched parallel from west to east. The sunset-striped pink snowy ridges of the cordillera with their deep-green, forested valleys, although much reduced in elevation from the rest of the cordillera, seemed rugged and impassable to me. Looking east, the ridges steadily decreased in height until they slipped beneath the Atlantic surf off eastern Tierra del Fuego. Suddenly clear of the snow-clad mountains, the plane dived eastward along the narrow Beagle Channel. It doubled back to pivot onto the only flat area, a tiny peninsula jutting out into the channel.
Through the rain-smeared windows of Ushuaia's tiny terminal, the view was magnificent. Ushuaia occupied one of the only natural indentations in the coast, which formed a protected harbor. Far above and behind the town, Monte Olivia's pyramid was wrapped in snow. Thick evergreen forests descended to the shoreline. Just below the steep, boulder-strewn slopes, pastel-colored houses huddled on a natural bench of land. Steep slopes boxed in the town to the west and east, and the Andes formed a forbidding wall on the north side.
After a lengthy delay at Ushuaia's airport, where we had to clear customs for the third time since leaving Buenos Aires, we squeezed our duffels and packs into three taxis and drove around the shoreline right up to the edge of the wooden dock. Two battleships dominated the eastern end. Floating below the rail was the main deck of a white-, orange-, and green-painted wooden ship with two tall masts. Its rotund hull and blunt bow were severely banged up.
Ron played his trick one more time. "Well, Margie, that's our research vessel."
I laughed aloud, glad to be on terra firma for a while longer, and looked around to see where our ship was. There were no other civilian ships. Could this squat tub be the Hero I had heard so much about?
A robust man in a tight navy-blue woolen shirt descended a ladder on the outside wall of the bridge and stepped toward the rail. Captain Dennison introduced himself and shook hands with the men before inviting them onboard to tour the cabins and decks. I toddled along behind. Dennison quickly admitted he was the relief captain; he was taking a "sort of busman's holiday" from ferrying passengers to and from Catalina Island in southern California.
Oh, boy, I thought. Does he know there are more shipwrecks per mile along Tierra del Fuego's coasts than anywhere else in the world?
The captain launched into his official tour. "The research vessel Hero, built in Maine in the style of a ketch-rigged trawler, was launched in 1968 to resupply Palmer Station, the US research base on the Antarctic Peninsula. She is 125 feet by 30 feet wide and displaces three hundred tons. She has a double hull of solid oak and a rounded keel, so she can ride up on ice floes and not get trapped. Sharper profile hulls get stuck, you know, and can be crushed by the ice pressure."
I blurted out, "Like what happened to Shackleton's ship, the Endurance!"
The captain stared at me as if I was a stray dog who just learned the power of speech. He refused to be deterred from his punch line. "The downside is: round hulls roll like logs." He paused for dramatic effect. "A Hero has no stabilizers."
The captain smiled. This information, he knew, would make our stomachs turn over. "Winds in the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica," he continued, "make the Roaring Forties of sailors' nightmares seem like zephyrs in comparison. At fifty-four degrees south latitude, we're in what they call the Furious Fifties."
From the orientation weekend the previous Spring at US Antarctic Research Program's (USARP) headquarters in Washington, I had learned that this tubby-looking vessel bravely cleaved the southern ocean between the Furious Fifties of Tierra del Fuego and the Screaming Sixties of Antarctica several times a year. Hero resupplied the US's Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula during the brief Antarctic summer of December and January. Outside those eight weeks, the ship was tied up at the dock in Ushuaia.
After Captain Dennison finished his introduction, he invited us to climb down a slippery ladder past two growling diesel engines ("which provide 760 hp") to reach the lower passageway. The glossy white-painted lower level contained the galley, a small mess, and tiny cabins. After the tour, the captain directed us to the new USARP warehouse located across the dock. Inside, I recognized the warehouse manager, Natalie Goodall, who had been the subject of a profile in National Geographic the previous year. I had been furious when I saw the article's title: the pioneering botanist and marine biologist was referred to in the title as "Housewife at the End of the World." Natalie shrugged and smiled when I brought it up and then gave us copies of her new book Tierra del Fuego, about the biology and history of the region.
Excerpted from OVER MY HEAD by Margaret Winslow Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Winslow. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I: VOYAGE OF THE HERO....................1
1. Falling off the Edge....................3
2. The Uttermost Part of the Earth....................7
3. Baptism by Zodiac....................15
4. Over My Head....................27
5. Hero on the Rocks....................33
6. Swimming to Cape Horn....................45
7. The End of the Road....................53
PART II: VIKINGS I....................59
8. Vikings in the Strait....................61
9. Losing Claudio....................71
10. Exploring the Strait....................87
11. The Keystone....................91
12. Storm on the Strait....................97
13. Where Is Claudio?....................101
14. The Admiral Meets the Vikings....................103
PART III VIKINGS II....................105
15. Seno Almirantazgo....................107
16. Killer Glacier....................119
17. No Refuge....................125
PART IV: VIKINGS III....................129
18. Three Women in a Tub....................131
19. Christmas in Bahia Snug....................153
20. Tortuous Pass....................161
21. The Six Magi....................165
22. The Lost Connection....................169
PART V: ANTARCTICA....................179
23. South to Antarctica....................181
24. The Big Chill....................189
25. A Long Way from Home....................201
Epilogue: The Earth Is Flat....................207
About the Author....................211
Bibliography and Recommended Reading....................215